When the protests over the police murder of George Floyd struck Portland in 2020, Douglas Detrick’s first thought was, “it feels like broken glass.” Not just the shattered storefront windows, but also the fracture of his hometown’s brittle beauty, the shards of a way of life and art fragmenting under the pressure of demands for long overdue social justice.
Glass’s fragile allure–as well as its strength and resilience and other characteristics–became a guiding metaphor for Detrick’s next artistic project, leading him along a winding path that led not just to unexpected destinations, like Renaissance and World War II Warsaw, but also new artistic frontiers.
From protests to podcast
Detrick, best known as a jazz trumpeter and composer, spearheaded From Maxville to Vanport, PJCE’s musical exploration of two of Oregon’s historically significant Black communities (read the story of that here). He had attended some protests but mostly looked on conflict from the outside, and found that, like many white people, he wasn’t as aware as he could have been about what led to the tensions that exploded in spring 2020. As a history buff, he was keen to learn about the sources of built-up tension through historical research and conversations with other artists in his podcast More Devotedly–itself named after a famous quote from conductor Leonard Bernstein about how artists can respond to great tragedy:
This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.Leonard Bernstein, November 24th, 1963.
Detrick finally decided to use the podcast to give a platform to artists to discuss their responses to the crisis and how it was being exploited by adversaries from the White House on down. “In the podcast, I was talking with artists in Portland about the protests, especially about how to respond to the conflicting messages from people who were taking what was happening in Portland and twisting it to suit their agendas,” he remembers. “I learned more about people trying to advance a repressive agenda, and also about what people are capable of in resisting oppressive forces. That became a way to capture ideas and emotions I was seeing some people feeling.”
He needed music to accompany the interviews, and that broken glass symbol that had popped into his mind led him to experiment with the sounds of glass, recording and then electronically manipulating sound generating sources from bottles and vases to a sheet of glass he bought at a hardware store.
“I wanted to score the episodes with music that would capture the stress and the complexity of that time in sound,” he wrote in the Glass Stories chapbook introduction. “I chose glass, using glass objects exclusively to create the music.
“I made that choice because of what I identified most strongly with glass—and Portland at that time—fragility, and how a sharp edge of broken glass can be turned into a weapon though it was never meant to be used that way.”
Detrick’s interest in glass sounds led him to explore the substance itself, and how it had been valued throughout history and across cultures, from ancient Aztecs and Greeks and Romans forward, for its strength (in some forms) and beauty.
“[A]s I learned more about glass and started working with it myself,” he wrote, “I realized that fragility, and the danger that implies, was only a part of its story. Research and experience led me to understand that glass can be strong, versatile and beautiful just as much as it can be fragile.”
From Portland to Poland
At the same time he was gazing into glass history , Detrick was also looking for lessons in history about how oppressed people had responded to institutional repression. Glass connections emerged there, too, from Kristallnacht to so-called “broken windows policing”–a conservative policy approach that claimed to prevent violent crime by cracking down on minor infractions, often resulting in racially disproportionate enforcement and police abuse of minority communities, which in turn contributed to the tensions that exploded in March 2020.
“How do you keep going when the world is like that?” He wondered. “For me a way to answer that question in was trying to understand people in history from different racial or gender backgrounds who’ve dealt with that,” including how they resisted it.
The two research streams — the histories of glass and resistance to repression — converged in, of all places, 17th century Poland, where, as Detrick tells it, a king invited oppressed Jews to find refuge in Warsaw, which became one of Europe’s largest Jewish enclaves. But when the Nazis occupied it in World War II, the same area became Europe’s largest ghetto, and the site of a notorious massacre and then expulsion of survivors to death camps. After the war, the area was renamed after Venice’s famed Murano glass manufacturing region.
The link to the Portland protests may seem initially elusive, but not to an artist’s mind. “It reminded me of Portland,” he explains, “how the meaning of a place changes over time and people can take it different ways and distort that meaning for nefarious purposes.”
The story of Warsaw’s ghetto also reminded him of his other current obsession. “Yes we’re fragile, we’re like glass,” he says. “But we’re also resilient and able to find beauty and joy in these terrible times.“
Now that he had his subjects, themes, metaphors and more, Detrick wondered how to express what he was feeling. Surprisingly, he chose not to use the art form — instrumental jazz — he’s best known for.
Most arts watchers and listeners know Detrick’s name by virtue of his performances with Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble or his own bands, or as executive and artistic director of PJCE from 2013 until a few months ago.
But he was displaying disdain for artistic pigeonholes even during his graduate student days at the University of Oregon, where he transcended the virtuoso trumpeter stereotype by composing and arranging original music and leading ensembles that ventured into the netherworlds that beckon between the domains marked ‘jazz’ and “classical.”
“I was always doing jazz, but also writing chamber music and more experimental music,” he recalls. “I’ve always been someone that never really fit into any one category.”
He also demonstrated an irrepressible tendency to follow new notions into unfamiliar territories. Concocting arrangements of folk songs with his AnyWhen Ensemble at UO and during a three-year stretch in New York City led to a pursuit of old Americana folk and then blues music by masters like Son House — an interest that further heated up when his wife decided to take banjo lessons. Detrick picked up the instrument himself, learned to play it, explored its heritage, and eventually created a folk/classical ensemble, Little One, to play that music. The folk music obsession would come in handy much later, during the pandemic, when words began to assume a much more prominent role in his search for artistic expression.
Detrick remembers his artistic errancy extending even further back, to his Portland childhood’s explorations that cheerfully transgressed artistic disciplines, “doing wild mixes of disciplines, making connections between things that most people don’t really connect. That’s where I find the most interesting things for me as an artist. This is what I’ve always done, which may surprise anyone who thinks of me as just a jazz trumpeter.“
In fact, he proudly calls himself a polyglot. Along with playing trumpet, Detrick is a podcaster, nonprofit executive, fiction writer, banjo player, composer/singer, songwriter, photographer, band leader, arts consultant, sound artist, recording engineer, and beyond that husband and father. I’m probably leaving a few out.
He hasn’t yet been able to devote nearly as much time and study to those fields as jazz trumpeting, but although he operates in a field that’s historically prized virtuosity, Detrick admires artists unafraid to venture into aesthetic areas where their chops and years of study don’t yet measure up to their primary callings. For Detrick, artistic technique is a means to an end, and if a different art form is needed to convey what an artist needs to express, that’s the form the artist should choose — and learn enough about to pull it off.
“A lot of the musicians I admire most, like Son House, even some who are professional artists, can capture that DIY spirit too,” he says. Even though he has a master’s degree in jazz studies, “I’m really interested in making your own connections and figuring out things on your own. I love it when [artists] build something totally unique, when they’ve created their own technique that achieves their artistic goals.”
The medium for the message
And that’s why it’s not really surprising that Detrick chose to tell his Glass Stories not via a jazz trumpet combo but in his own voice as a singer, songwriter and banjo accompanist. And in a pair of short stories. And photos. And a book, which of course he also designed.
“I’m in this transition period in my work as an artist, and words are becoming more and more important,” says Detrick, who’d already found ways to incorporate words via recordings of interviews in other projects in recent years. Sometimes he’d give instrumental works long, poetic titles, or write folk song arrangements and then recite the lyrics for the audience before playing the music alone on trumpet. Finally he started writing songs and singing, and then, with Glass Stories, fiction.
He commenced the project by writing a couple of songs inspired by his research — and by his cat, who woke him up by knocking something breakable off a table. (The incident inspired a crucial moment in the first story, “Seven Years.”) He thought about the places he’d been studying, then imagined characters in those times and places experiencing repression, then a plot and the rest. The stories, in song and later print, expressed ideas and feelings that jazz trumpet couldn’t.
“Seven Years” tells the story of a 17th century servant girl, the nobleman who employs and exploits her, and another, more mysterious older servant woman. “Weapon to Wield” shows a Jewish father and son pushed to the brink of desperation and hunger by Nazi anti-Semitism. An epilogue explains the historical bases for these fictional tales.
“The stories began with glass, and glass is physically present and a driver of the plot in both stories,” he wrote. “The characters … all share the qualities of glass. They are made of many ingredients, they are resilient, they are adaptable, but yes, they are fragile.”
Around the same time he was moving toward fiction writing, Detrick was exploring photography, after first dipping into visuals by making videos for PJCE, which led to photography for the organization, and then for fun, and then artistic expression —as always, Detrick follows where art leads him.
The black and white photos and stories appear in Detrick’s new 56 page, 5.5″ x 8.5″ perfect-bound book, available at the concert.
He took the photos in Glass Stories in a dark room with pieces of broken glass artfully arranged on black fleece, with only some light reflected off the ceiling, then lightly manipulated contrast and color digitally.
“I’d take this material, break it apart, then put it back together in a way that’s meaningful,” he explains. Maybe that, too, is a metaphor for what will happen to his city.
Stories on stage
That Detrick is celebrating his project’s release with a concert is a bit ironic, because Glass Stories signals a turn in Detrick’s artistic practice from predominantly performance based music toward other incarnations. Of course, he’ll continue making music and playing it live, but now he’s found other ways of expressing messages beyond music alone.
He’ll talk about the stories at Saturday’s performance, (but won’t read them aloud), and about his journey to folk music and banjo. He’ll play a few solo folk numbers, like new Rock n Roll Hall of Fame inductee Elizabeth Cotten’s historic “Freight Train,” his own originals, and a Pete Seeger classic. Portland jazz pianist Jasnam Daya Singh then joins Detrick for more originals. The final segment features Detrick playing banjo and singing the two Glass Stories songs and another original, accompanied by Singh on harmonium, Alexis Evers on flute and Catherine Lee on English horn.
The concert coincides with Detrick’s departure from PJCE, which he led for eight years to new heights, including the Maxville to Vanport Project (which he just finished touring with last month), a Creative Heights grant, a podcast, and many creative collaborations. Detrick also worked to solidify PJCE’s fundraising and organizational infrastructure to the extent that he believes it will be able to carry on under new director Meg Morrow and beyond, despite the challenges original jazz faces in Portland and pretty much everywhere else outside New York and Los Angeles.
But he’s long been ready to devote more time to his burgeoning artistic pursuits. He’s working on a big fiction project that will likely debut in audio form with original music. He’ll continue to develop his songwriting and the myriad other creative avenues he’s only begun to explore, unburdened by administrative responsibilities. “Now to be able to let that go does feel very freeing,” he says. “There’s all these new possibilities. It’s a new road ahead. Even if I don’t know where it’s going yet.”
That’s never stopped him before.
Douglas Detrick and friends present Glass Stories at 7:30 pm Friday, July 1 at Resound NW, 1532 SW Jefferson St., Portland. Tickets at douglasdetrick.com.